Listening, Speaking (then Reading, Writing): Part two: Madness Behind the “Method”

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Let’s look, first, at several explanations of the word “method”, then we’ll get into the madness.

Webster’s Dictionary:
1:  a procedure or process for attaining an object: as a (1) :  a systematic procedure, technique, or mode of inquiry employed by or proper to a particular discipline or art (2) :  a systematic plan followed in presenting material for instruction

The Free Dictionary (dot com):
teaching method – the principles and methods of instruction
pedagogics, pedagogy
method – a way of doing something, especially a systematic way; implies an orderly logical arrangement (usually in steps)

Teach (dot com):
The term Teaching method refers to the general principles, pedagogy and management strategies used for classroom instruction. Your choice of teaching method depends on what fits you — your educational philosophy, classroom demographic, subject area(s) and school mission statement. Teaching theories primarily fall into two categories or “approaches” — teacher-centered and student-centered

So? you may ask. What are you getting at? We all know what a “method” is, what’s the problem here?

Actually, the problem lies in the very first, Webster’s, definition: systematic. That word, systematic, is used in the second definition as well. The third avoids saying systematic out loud, but we all know that that is what is expected of us as teachers. “Method” is a word we use all the time, often not aware of how restrictive having or using a “method” can be in our day-to-day tasks of getting our students to learn something, anything.

When applied to language teaching, “method” can almost become that monster that raised its ugly head. From the Grammar Translation “Method”, through the Audio Lingual Method, the Vaughan “Method” (which seems to me a modernized ALM), Krashen’s Natural “Method”, even the once popular Berlitz “Method”, all have one thing in common. Language teaching (and thus learning) is systematized, usually based upon “general principles, pedagogy and management strategies”.

Once those principles, pedagogy and strategies have been established, a set of “rules” usually follows. Teachers are trained and instructed to present their material in the established fashion in order to ensure the promised objectives. And there will be objectives promised in language “methodology”. Kids learn languages naturally, so if we teach languages in the same way kids learn languages, then we have the Natural “Method” (yes, I am simplifying Mr Krashen’s much more complex set of principles). Follow this “method” and you will be speaking the language in no time at all, maybe even like a native….

When a “method” becomes etched in stone, as it tends to be when standards are involved (think: standard leads to “standardized”), teachers are often stripped of their vocation. They become mechanisms for practicing the “method” with their students. If they stray from the conventions of the “method”, any non-reaching of objectives will easily be blamed upon that straying. Teacher creativity gets stifled, the “method” is considered end-all, above-all. If the “method” is properly used, the promised objectives will be reached.

When those promised objectives are not reached despite strict adherence to the “method”, then the method faces at worst a slow death, at best, a commercial transformation. What is often overlooked is that no particular method is the end-all, nor is it above-all.

A “method” should be a framework within which a teacher can apply his own ideas, expand and develop his own materials and style, always with the main objective being helping his students to learn the target language. When the “method” is placed before students’ needs and wants, when the “method” earns a name for itself (Audio Lingual, Berlitz, Vaughan) you can probably be assured that this “method” takes precedence over teacher and student objectives.

How can we work around imposed methods? What can we as teachers do to both satisfy the “method” and make sure our students are getting what they entered the classroom for? I’ll address these questions in the next installment, Manipulating the Method.

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